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Authors: Allan Massie

Klaus

BOOK: Klaus
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Klaus

by Allan Massie

For Charles Glass
Klaus
I

Klaus woke from a dream of the house in Poschingerstrasse when they were young and happy. He was again the child in the sailor suit and Erika was with him dressed as the Princess she had always been in his eyes.

Late morning sunlight slid through the green shutters and lay on the sleeping face of the boy beside him. He ran his finger along the line of the jaw on which there was only a soft down rather than stubble. He let it lie on the boy’s lips and heard a little sigh, and leaned over and kissed him with gratitude rather than desire. There was aniseed on the breath. The boy from the Zanzi Bar gave a soft moan and his hand came up from under the duvet and rested on Klaus’s.

For a moment life was as you hope it is and sometimes, just sometimes, believe it may be. As it had been when they lived in that house in Munich and were young geniuses together.

All gone, swept away by time’s flooding river.

The reality was the house as he had seen it for the first time in more than twelve years and the last time ever, in May 1945. He found the roof and most of the interior walls gone, result of an Allied bomb in September ’42. The sight left him hollow as the building. You can’t go back.

A girl was watching him from an empty window on the second floor, his window, his old bedroom. She looked at him without sign of curiosity or fear, and he called out to her in his discarded native tongue.

“Come up,” she said, indicating the means by which he might do so, a rickety ladder propped against the wall.

Who was she? What was she doing there? Did she know whose house this had been?

“Does it matter?” she said. “None of that matters now.”

But he persisted.

“Some writer, they say, who didn’t get along with the Nazis. So they confiscated it, like they stole anything they fancied, and put it to their own use.”

“As what?” he said.

“It was the SS took it over. They established a
Lebensborn
here.”

“A
Lebensborn
?”

He wasn’t sure he had got it right and not only because he had difficulty in following her accent, which wasn’t Bavarian but from somewhere north or east, Saxony perhaps. But if he had, the word was new to him. Even the language he had been born in had changed.

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t know anything, do you, even though you’re the first American soldier I’ve met who speaks German.”

Was there contempt or pity in her voice as she stood bare-legged in a shapeless grey woollen dress stained with all manner of substances?

“A
Lebensborn
,” she said again, “where they bred proper little Nazis, specimens of the true Aryan race, the future of Germany. Hadn’t you heard?”

In his own bedroom perhaps.

“And you?” he said, “were you…?”

He didn’t know how to put it, without offence. But she smiled for the first time.

“Not me. Look at me.”

She was small and dark, and thin as only the starving and malnourished are thin.

“And you’re living here now?” he said.

“Why not? I’ve nowhere else. Not that I’m the only one, though there’s some as says it’s too dangerous, that the whole building’ll fall in. So what if it does, that’s what I say.”

“How old are you?”

“Sixteen, seventeen, I forget.”

“And your parents?”

“God knows. I don’t. I haven’t seen them since ’43. Do you want me?”

She made the offer in a flat voice, take me or leave me, without expression, without either hope or repugnance. He shook his head, but gave her money, American dollars.

You can’t go home. You can’t go home anymore. The boy shifted position, his hand now resting on Klaus’s belly.

To be able to sleep like that.

You can’t go home anymore. Klaus had known it for a long time now.

Except in dreams and memories.

Of Erika when nothing and no one had come between them, in the days when they were taken for twins and acted as twins and thought of themselves and each other as twins.

Evenings in the drawing-room, the heavy dark crimson velvet curtains drawn, the whole family assembled, himself and Erika holding hands on the Biedermeier sofa, smoke blue-grey from the Magician’s Maria Mancini as he read to them from work-in-progress, novels, stories, essays, addresses to be given to learned societies, occasionally what Klaus later recognised as polemics. And they listened, all of them, even Golo who distrusted the Magician, in respectful and obedient silence, even the youngest who must often have understood nothing.

He was working now, Erika had said in her last letter, on
Felix Krull, Confidence Man
, the comic novel he had set aside, unfinished, perhaps scarcely begun, half a lifetime ago.

“There are bits of you in it now, and Felix is as beautiful as you were as a boy.”

Letters – so many to write, so many lying unanswered, so many he had sent off asking, begging, for work, the work that would give him, for the time being, reason to go on, and which still awaited a reply.

The sunlight had died away. It was raining now. Grey light. They said they couldn’t recall such a miserable spring here in Cannes.

That morning – how old was he? thirteen? fourteen? – when the Magician had entered the bathroom as he lay in the water with a little cloud rising between his legs. and had stood there smoking and gazing, placidly and yet with an intensity that made Klaus blush, until, remarking only, “You really should bolt the door, dear boy,” he turned away.

There had been two other visits, two other encounters, on that return to what had been his homeland.

In both cases Klaus wanted to know, simply to know, how men he had admired had contrived to remain there and endure, live through, the years of the regime..

First, Emil Jannings, the actor who had so movingly depicted the disintegration of a once proud and respected personality in the film of
The Blue Angel
, made from Uncle Heinrich’s novel,
Professor Unrat
.

Old Emil, smiling family friend, received him in his beautiful house on the Lake of St Wolfgang, near Salzburg, and was delighted to see him.

“Dear boy, your arrival brings the promise of the return of spring.”

His sweet and charming wife Gussy enfolded Klaus in an embrace. Gussy, previously married to Conrad Veidt, anti-Nazi, refugee, who had flourished in Hollywood – playing Nazis, notably Major Strasser in
Casablanca
.

Nevertheless, “Look, Emil,” Klaus had said, “I must tell you I am here, not as a friend, but as a reporter for the US army newspaper,
Stars and Stripes
, and I want your story for it. That’s all. I don’t care,” he lied, “if you were a Nazi or not. I just want to be able to tell what it was like for a distinguished actor to live through these years.”

“Me a Nazi?” Jannings had laughed, and called on Gussy to bring a bottle of Moselle – “the best we have, schatz,” he said, smiling and extending his arms wide as if he too wanted to fold Klaus in them.

“Oh,” he said, “what happy memories return, dear boy, when I see you again! What fun we had in the old days! Do you remember that Christmas Eve in Hollywood – when was it? 1930? – when you and Erika descended on us like visiting angels, or babes in the wood, perhaps? And that delightful carnival in Munich? Seeing you again, dear boy, obliterates, quite wipes out, expunges, the memory of the grim years we have endured. Endured and suffered, for don’t think that because you see us here in our beautiful home, we have escaped suffering. And your father? He is well, I trust, and about to return to Germany now it’s all over? And your dear uncle Heinrich? What a part he wrote for me! Ah, my dear, pour the wine. You won’t have drunk wine like this in America. Me a Nazi? Of course not. I’m an artist, a mere actor, a man without politics. It’s true I appeared, as you may have heard – appeared as the star of course – in that film, which you might call propaganda –
Ohm
Krüger
– a good part and I made the most of it – but only because I had no choice. I was compelled to. Dr Goebbels – dreadful little man – blackmailed me. It would have been suicide to say ‘no’. You will remember that I had a Jewish grandmother…”

And so it went on. All the old charm was there. Briefly Klaus succumbed, set scepticism aside, and the piece he wrote was, well, generous. Emil, he suggested, had gone as far in resistance – or what had become known as “internal exile” – as he dared without endangering his life, his family, his career, or even his bank account.

Then the letters came, indignant, unanswerable. Jannings, they said, had crept and crawled like the worst and most contemptible of scoundrels. One correspondent sent Klaus a biography of old Kruger with an introduction by Emil in which he lavished praise on Goebbels, thanking him in the most servile fashion for giving him the opportunity to play the great part of the Boer leader who had defied the might of the British Empire.

Shameful.

And Klaus thought of how the old fellow had laughed and smiled and lavished endearments on him as he insisted they had another bottle of “this golden wine”…

Yet now, looking at the sleeping boy beside him, he found himself saying – actually speaking the words aloud as people do who live mostly alone – “Poor old Emil – he wanted to stay alive in his beautiful house drinking good wine and would submit to any degradation that allowed him to do so…”

He turned to the little table by the bed, picked up his notebook and a pencil, and scribbled: “There is no end to the humiliation people will accept. So Emil divested himself of all responsibility for anything but his own comfort, and will doubtless continue to live at ease with his dishonour. But, as for me, if I was to tell my own story, would it be more edifying? Certainly I can claim consistent resistance to the Brown Plague, but how effective was anything I did? And what’s my life been? The story of an intellectual who never found the community he was searching for, who lived disconnected, rootless, a solitary wanderer – a German who wanted to be a European – a European who wanted to be a citizen of the world – an individual hopelessly opposed to the spirit of the age he was condemned to live in – and who, now when victory has been attained, finds its fruit bitter, and himself alone…”

“What are you writing?”

The boy leaned on his shoulder.

“Words, words, nothing but words.”

“Can we get some coffee sent up?”

“Of course.”

“Is that what you do for a living? Just write?”

“It’s what I am.”

It’s what I was.

His other visit had been to Richard Strauss who wasn’t, as Emil had been, a family friend, though of course the Magician knew him as he knew every artist of note. This time Klaus didn’t give his name. He was simply the American reporter.

Strauss was eager to speak. He was both complacent, sure of his status as the foremost composer of the age, and indignant. It was good that the Nazis had gone. As for Hitler, “he never appreciated my work. With him it was Wagner, always Wagner. Would you believe it? He almost never attended a performance of any of my operas…”

There had been one exception: Hans Franck, the Governor-General of Poland. “Now he had a proper appreciation of my work. A man of taste and culture…”

Organiser of the death-camps.

“What a strange country this was,” Klaus had written, “one where even the creative artists, even those touched with genius, had forgotten the language of humanity. There was, I discovered, an abyss separating me from those who had been my countrymen.”

That had been more than five years ago. Since then he had struggled to find a new purpose to give meaning to life.

The boy put down his coffee cup. “Time I was on the boat,” he said.

He got out of bed, stood a moment naked, admiring himself before the glass – innocently? yes, why not innocently? – pulled on his trousers and singlet, ran his hand over his dark curly hair.

“Pass me my jacket,” Klaus said.

He took a couple of notes from his wallet and handed them to the boy.

“You’re all right, Klaus.”

“You think so? Sweet of you.”

“Sure. You like me too? Another time, yes? Not tonight, because I’ll be with my girl. But the day after? At the Zanzi? OK?”

He bent down and kissed Klaus on the cheek. “Yes, you’re all right,” he said again.

The door shut behind him. Klaus listened to his steps descending the stair.

If only I was. He got out of bed, wrapped a towel round his waist, stood at the window and watched the boy till he was out of sight. Then he filled a syringe with morphine and injected.

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